Ile de St. Barth Serves Up Caribbean Adventure
I peered out the window of the 9-seat commercial aircraft at the first views of the emerald bays, white beaches and arid hills of St. Barthélemy. Even from this altitude I could see the surf of the north coast and the clear, tranquil bays to the south. My wife exclaimed her appreciation for the views. We had recently picked St. Barth from a long list of Caribbean havens and were looking forward to a 10-day holiday. The engine roar made conversation difficult, but I overhead a French passenger warning his companion of the approaching landing. I asked in my halting French, "C'est dangereux?" He nodded his head emphatically, "Oui, oui!". Shouting in nasally English, he told the story of a recent plane that overshot the short runway, skipped over the neighboring beach, and stopped in 3 feet of surf. The passengers had waded ashore with baggage on their shoulders
It seemed we would crash as we approached the V formed by two hills. But we cleared the brush and peered through the cockpit at what seemed to be the world's shortest runway. The pilot nosed down confidently. The tires squealed as we landed and braked strongly. Circling back to the tiny terminal we noticed about 50 yards of remaining runway. Why had we worried? With our adrenaline still pumping we gazed at the beach's sun worshipers and sensed that St. Barth would offer many additional adventures.
French Caribbean Ambiance
St. Barth's narrow topography includes 14 white sand beaches with a variety of sporting opportunities. The hilly terrain makes the island feel much larger than its eight square miles. St. Barth is only a 15-minute hop from St. Martin, but seems oceans away because of its constant tropical breezes and slower pace. The climate is almost perfect, temperatures averaging in the 80s throughout the year. Most tourists avoid the "hurricane season" of September and October. The 7,000 French-speaking residents live primarily in the port town of Gustavia and three additional small villages. The residents and a maximum of approximately 3,000 tourists get around via motor scooters or open-aired "Mokes," small Jeep-like vehicles well suited to climbing the steep, narrow roads.
St. Barth's original settlers came from Normandy in 1648 and set up stone-house villages centered on their fishing and goat-herding livelihoods. The arid climate limited farming to a few hardy native fruits and vegetables. The three ancient villages are still here with the descendants of original settlers who speak a specialized French Norman dialect. Tourism became the major industry in the 1960s. Fortunately, development is limited due to reliance on ship-supplied water. Today's restaurant and shop owners are generally young transplants from France, relocated to enjoy St. Barth's pleasures.
The sole port town of Gustavia retains its Swedish name, bestowed when Sweden owned the island from 1784-1878. Gustavia runs along three major streets that circle the harbor and climb the hillsides. It has the perfect balance of mariner's bars, big-name French shops, galleries, fine restaurants, bistros, ice cream parlors, and cafes. Shop and restaurant personnel speak English well. Two of our favorite restaurants were the Vincent Adam near St. Jean and Paradiso in Gustavia. The majority of the resorts and villas sit along four major bays, within a five to ten minute drive of Gustavia's action.
Sporting Opportunities Galore
A common thread through St. Barth's sporting opportunities is sun worshipping. Many of the beaches are isolated, each with a specific appeal. Sun bathers have the option to go topless in the French tradition. The southern lee-side of the island has a variety of tranquil bays perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Our favorites snorkeling spots were Colombier, reachable only by foot with an enjoyable one-mile coastline hike, and Grand Galet. At the base of the cliff which borders shell-lined Grand Galet beach, our snorkeling found a dazzling variety of tropical fish. There is a scuba diving service in Gustavia which centers its dives at a group of rocky islands to the west. Divers we met claimed the sites are superb. Deep sea fishing charters are also available in Gustavia.
The northern windward-side of the island has good wind-surfing in a calm lagoon, Le Grand Cul de Sac. I was able to enjoy two high-wind days on rented boards there. Adventurous windsurfers may also want to tackle the surf and waves of Baie de St. Jean, near the airport. Surfers go to Lorient and Cayes beaches. Waves are generally smaller than on the California coast. We enjoyed body-board surfing here with boards rented in St. Jean. The sailing around St. Barth is first-rate. A two-hour catamaran cocktail sail from Gustavia provided good thrills as we sped in the open sea, laughing with crew and passengers.
There is even good hiking on St. Barth. We found a breathtaking four-mile hiking trail that winds along the rugged eastern coastline starting at Grand Fond beach. Wild terrain and strong breakers give the feeling of an isolated California or Normandy coastline. Pelicans and sea gulls are rulers here. Other sporting opportunities include tennis (eight island courts) and horse back riding near Flamands.
Our St. Barth vacation was all we had hoped it would be. The ten days passed too quickly, so we have already made plans to return. St. Barth offers the best that you can find on the French Mediterranean without the crowds and exorbitant prices. It is not cut-rate, but you feel that you are getting good value along with the French joie de vivre.
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